Where are the pass rushers?

There was a time when Tennessee cranked out NFL-caliber pass rushers the way rabbits crank out bunnies. Unfortunately for the Vols, that time seems to have passed.

The Vols' string of deluxe pass rushers began in 1991. Defensive ends Chris Mims (Round 1 to San Diego) and Chuck Smith (Round 2 to Atlanta) were selected early in the 1992 NFL Draft and went on to have solid pro careers. Incidentally, both came to UT via junior college.

Tennessee produced another big-time pass rusher in 1992. End Todd Kelly was so good that season he was the first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in the '93 draft.

The 1983 season saw Tennessee produce perhaps the greatest pass rusher in football history. Tackle Reggie White might've been the No. 1 pick in the 1984 NFL Draft if he hadn't signed with the Memphis Showboats of the rival USFL.

After a brief dry spell, Tennessee was at it again in 1997. End Leonard Little was one of the most feared pass rushers in college football that fall. He lasted until Round 3 of the '98 NFL Draft only because of concerns about his lack of size.

End Shaun Ellis had no such problem. Following a tremendous season with the Vols in 1999, he was taken by the New York Jets with the 12th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.

Since the spring of 2000, however, Tennessee has had just two pass-rushing ends good enough to be drafted by NFL teams – Will Overstreet (Round 3, 2002) and Parys Haralson (Round 5, 2006) – and both were converted into linebackers at the pro level.

Both of Tennessee's 2007 starting ends are eligible for this weekend's NFL Draft. Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds combined for a paltry five sacks last fall, however, and neither is projected to be selected.

Not all great college players are coveted by the NFL, of course. Still, the fact Tennessee has gone eight years without producing an NFL-caliber pass rusher may help explain the Vols' recent inability to pressure opposing passers.

Even with Mitchell and Reynolds out of eligibility, Tennessee might get more pass rush from its ends in 2008 than it did in 2007. Heirs-apparent Robert Ayers and Wes Brown appear to have more quickness and explosiveness than their predecessors. Perhaps they can provide the pressure "off the edge" Tennessee used to be known for.

"We'll see as the season goes on," defensive coordinator John Chavis said recently. "Certainly, I feel we're at a much better point than we were at this time last year. Those two ends (Ayers and Brown) have created a lot of that situation for us."

A weak pass rush in 2007 contributed significantly as Tennessee finished 11th among the 12 SEC teams in pass defense and pass-defense efficiency. Chavis tried hard to upgrade this area during spring practice.

"We've worked it a lot more," he said. "We'll see how we match up in the fall but we do feel better right now than we did this time a year ago."


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